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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 7/17/98



It's a Wonderful Life
1946 (1998) - Liberty Films / R.K.O. (Republic)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

THX-certified

Film Rating: A+
An enduring and heartwarming classic, it ranks easily among the best American films of all time. If I could only save one film, this would be my sentimental choice.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/B/A
Truly stunning B&W image quality and generally very good mono audio. A pair of solid featurettes and a theatrical trailer are included.

Overall Rating: A+
This classic film has NEVER looked better. A must for every film fan, young and old alike - treat yourself and enjoy!

Specs and Features

132 mins, not rated, full frame (1.33:1 - original aspect ratio), B&W, dual-sided, Amaray keep case packaging, documentaries: The Making of It's A Wonderful Life and A Personal Remembrance, theatrical trailer, THX certified, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English, French and Spanish (DD 1.0), subtitles: French and Spanish, Close Captioned

Review

Both Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra have called It's a Wonderful Life their best work, and it's hard to argue the point. Stewart, in his first acting role after returning from World War II (he was a pilot in the Army Air Force) gives the performance of a lifetime as George Bailey, the likable everyman who yearns to leave his small town behind, to see the world and make his fortune.

As fate would have it, of course, events conspire to keep George in tiny Bedford Falls, where he must bear the seemingly thankless task of keeping the family business (a tiny Building and Loan) afloat after the death of his father. To make matters worse, the greedy Mr. Potter (actor Lionel Barrymore as the local miser and Grinch) will stop at nothing to put the Building and Loan out of business, as part of his bid to own everything in town. But George has the love, strength and inspiration of his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) to help him endure, not to mention a true rogue's gallery of friends and family. And in his darkest hour, a lowly, second-class guardian angel named Clarence is there to show George the true value of his life.

Few filmmakers have been as prolific as Frank Capra in terms of exploring the human condition. Ever idealistic, Capra endowed all his films (like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take it With You, and It Happened One Night) with a somewhat simplistic sense of hope and optimism, leading some to criticize his work. But that same optimism has helped to ensure that few filmmakers' work has been as enduing as Capra's. And no film is more exemplary of his ideals than It's a Wonderful Life.

The film boasts a terrific cast, from leads Stewart and Reed, right down to the supporting players (all top-flight character actors in their day). Few actors have breathed life into a character as vile and universally derided as Barrymore's Mr. Potter. Henry Travers and Thomas Mitchell are both wonderful as Clarence and Uncle Billy. But it's Ward Bond and Frank Faylen that I enjoy most, in their comical roles as the original Bert and Ernie.

It's hard to believe now, but It's a Wonderful Life was largely unsuccessful when first released in 1946. Moviegoers then found it took dark and depressing to embrace. It was not until the film's copyright expired in the 70's that it finally found a wide audience. TV stations around the country were suddenly able to air the film without charge, and air it they did, particularly around the holidays. The rest, of course, is film history.

As a student of that history, and as a major film buff, one of the greatest pleasures I've found in DVD, is in rediscovering the rarely-seen original quality of classic films. Like most of you, I've previously only seen It's a Wonderful Life on late-night TV during the holidays, or (at best) on a fair quality VHS tape. So when I eagerly slipped this disc in my player, I was absolutely floored by the picture. It is, in a word, gorgeous. The folks at Republic have gone back and digitally re-mastered this DVD from the original film negative, and it really shows. There are very few scratches to be seen, which is surprising for a film this old. The sharpness and contrast present in the image is really striking. Best of all, you'll find no edited-down or colorized version here - this is director Capra's original and uncut version.

The audio is nearly as good, particularly for mono. The sound clarity is almost always excellent, although there is a very brief period of time (in Chapter 5, running from 12:45 to about 14:00) where the audio has a slightly muffled quality. This is, however, a very minor flaw, and the only one I noticed on the disc.

The presentation of this DVD is terrific, starting with the very appearance of the packaging. The Republic Silver Screen Classics series DVDs, of which this is one, all have a snazzy-looking metallic silver foil insert, making them really jump out at you on the store shelf. Once you start Side A (which contains the actual film), the first thing you see is a splash screen featuring the film's title and the signature image of Stewart and Reed. A jaunty fanfare of "Buffalo Girl" plays briefly in the background. Then the splash screen disappears, replaced by the THX logo. Yes, this disc has been THX certified for superior picture and sound quality - the next nice touch. There's also background music playing behind the main menu screen. The English subtitles are actually captioned, and indicate which character is speaking in addition to displaying the dialogue.

Flip the disc over to Side B, and all the extras are available. There's an original theatrical trailer to be found here, and two nifty documentaries. The first, The Making of It's A Wonderful Life, features interviews with both the late Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. Narrated by Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame, it reveals some fascinating insights about the history of the film, and the effort to bring it to the screen. For example: did you know that the love-scorned kid who opens the gym floor in the dance scene (eventually dropping George and Mary into the pool underneath) was played by Carl Switzer... Alfalfa of Our Gang fame? The other featurette, A Personal Remembrance, is a fitting tribute to director Capra by his son, Frank Capra, Jr..

The film itself is presented in it's original full frame format. It runs 132 minutes, and the two featurettes together run about an additional 40 minutes (which the package mislabels 28 minutes - not sure what happened there). There are language tracks in English, French and Spanish, along with French and Spanish subtitles and English captions. The film has 28 chapters (there are no chapters in either featurette).

Bottom line

Bravo Republic! It's a Wonderful Life has never looked better than it does on this DVD. As soon as you can get yourself a copy... get yourself a copy! It's a terrific value as DVDs go, and a real treat to watch. "I wish I had a million dollars!" Ah, forget the million... I'll take It's a Wonderful Life on DVD any day. "Hot Dog!"

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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